I was having a discussion with two friends the other day one an Episcopalian the other a Catholic. (I know it already sounds like a bar joke, but stay with me it actually happened) I joked with the Episcopalian that she was just a wanna be Catholic, she quickly retorted saying, “No! You see we have all of the good stuff from the Catholic church just with none of the guilt!” Some more, pretty comical dialogue was exchanged but the initial conversation really got me thinking about guilt, my religious upbringing and what place, if any, guilt has in student ministry.
I grew up in a student ministry where we heard and talked a lot about our sin. Every week in Sunday school, sunday night bible study and Wednesday night worship we heard about how we were sinners and the guilt that sin placed on our lives. We also talked frequently about the guilt that we felt in our hearts was from the Holy Spirit convicting us of our sins.
We talked a lot about sin.
We even went through a semester long study called, wait for it…. Sin: The Exceeding Sinfulness of Sin.
I kid you not, I still have the book if you want me to prove it to you.
It was crippling as a youth. I constantly felt the weight of this “conviction” on me. People would tell me it was the Holy Spirit, I now know that most of it was a consistent browbeating barrage from the community of faith in which I was a part. After leaving that faith community and consequently denomination my relationship with sin and guilt evolved and devolved considerably. It changed, through what I now understand as a certain period of discernment, from being universal sins to understanding them now as cultural and contextual preferences at best.
It was tempting to throw the guilt baby out with the contextual sin bathwater.
It makes sense right?
Guilt is used in so many churches and especially youth ministries to hurt, oppress, and beat youth and congregants into a certain doctrinal position and submission, which is more often than not based on a very temporal and contextual (also usually political) opinion of the church.
This is bad. If you argue in the comment section otherwise, I will not engage you.
Yet, through all of the knee jerk reactions, logical reasoning and practical considerations; I think guilt still has a place in youth ministry.
Disclaimer: We, as people, should never be the dispensers of guilt. This is a post to help student ministers help our youth understand and process what to do with guilt when they feel it. Guilt can be healthy if channeled in these ways. But again, it is never our job to push the weight of guilt on our students.
Reason 1: Guilt Can Help Us See Our Actions From the Victim’s Perspective
Guilt can be very helpful for our students when it causes them to take into consideration the plight of the other. I write in my book Hollow Faith, that most students function under the 2 Week 5 Feet rule. It says that for the most part their world view and primary concern is limited to what is two weeks in front of them and a radius of 5 feet around them. When guilt is healthily channeled, I think it can help jolt the student out of this world view and into seeing the distant other and the neighbor other in whole new ways. This can function from feeling guilty from stealing from someone they know to feeling guilty for spending $150 on new shoes when they see a commercial about children in the jungle who do not have a bowl of rice to eat that night. This funneling of guilt should always have the theological action point of reconciliation. If it is not dealt with and interpreted properly it can result in terminal apathy.
Reason 2: Guilt Can Remind Us To Not To Make the Same Mistake Twice
Guilt can be the weighty acme anvil hanging over the head of our students, and at any moment it can come crashing down on them destroying any semblance of who they are. This kind of guilt is often the kind that leads to youth harming, themselves, others and even suicide. It is imperative to reinterpret this guilt into something that will not drop on our students but rather form and shape their future actions. It is pivotal that we help students know that they cannot go back and change their previous actions, but they can move forward into better and new action based on what they learned from previous choices. They can only learn, though, if we help them move beyond feelings of regret into resolutions of resolve. The action point for this kind of guilt is that they resolve to not make the same mistake or choice again. It is so healthy when we reinterpret this guilt as a built in reminder to go forward from this place having learned and having been made better because of it.
Reason 3: Guilt Should Perpetuate How We Give and Receive Grace
Finally, I think guilt, when understood properly, should make us thankful receivers and ardent evangelists for the cause of grace in ours and others lives. Unfortunately, most churches who talk about guilt and sin a lot are some of the most ungracious, judgmental and just plain mean people I have ever come in contact with (in or outside the church). What guilt, in its very best form, should do is cause our world view and our interpersonal lenses to only see and perpetuate grace and gracefulness. It should cause us to understand and proclaim that grace is always annoyingly nipping at the heels of guilt and condemnation, persisting and refusing to let it make a home in our lives or the lives of others. The reason why guilt is important is because it should be the catalyst of its own demise, always reminding us that it never has the last word and that the period only comes after the word “grace”(period)